Dorothee Gaschingnard, owner
What attracted you to open your restaurant in Mare St, in particular?
Well, first of all I live in Hackney and I’ve been living here for about six years and I love the area. I’ve loved seeing the area evolve and develop and grow and I’ve been in restaurants for 16 years, I’ve managed restaurants and worked for big companies but it was always my dream to open up a restaurant. Then the time came and I saw potential in the area and I started looking aroundand was seeing what was available. This place used to be a kebab shop, actually. I thought we could do something nice with it. The whole idea is a French Bistro, that’s the vision.
Where are you from in France?
Nantes, it’s south-west of Brittany. And I wanted to do a traditional French bisto taking flavours from home and where you could eat very simple food, but very traditional. Everything would be home-made and fresh produce, some sourced from France as they are typically from there and some are sourced from around here. I have a very accessible menu. I’m not into fussy French, I’m more about the rustic, simple, homely, welcoming food.
How did you go about creating your menu?
Some of the items are family recipes, some are personal favourites.
I love the bouillabaisse, which is a rich fish stew from Marseille. This recipe has been re-tweaked by our chef who is an expert in the kitchen - he has a traditional French cooking background but he likes to add his own touch to things.
Your Maman’s Chocolate slice is always really popular - is that your Maman?
Yes, it is. It was a cake that I’d have growing up on special occasions like birthdays, it was a real family treat and something that people love so I thought if my family love it, I’m sure other people will too.
You’ve just celebrated a year of the restaurant opening - what’s the response been like?
It’s been really, really good. Hackney is so vibrant and the people are so courteous and real foodies too. It’s been a great journey. Lunch and evenings are very different, the lunch crowd is more people who work in the area, from the NHS, from people in the council and students from the fashion schools. In the evenings, it’s more locals living in the area and the evening is a bit more vibrant.
What would you say is your most popular dish?
The steak tartare is very popular, and so is the lamb shank with lentils - a south-western dish. The steak-frites is always a classic dish for us too. It’s all about the cut of the meat. We have a few suppliers. For the steak tartare, we use a Charolais beef from France and this is what’s traditionally used to make the dish as it’s very lean and because the steak tartare is chopped to order - it needs to be very tender.
You’ve had snails on the menu since you’ve been open - have these gone down well?
Yes! This is what I am most pleased about. To start, I put the snails and the bone marrow on the menu, dishes that are a little bit out there, I thought ‘I’ll just play around with it, put it on the menu and see’. But they’re actually really popular, which I love. It shows people are daring and curious. People generally go for everything on the menu - I’ve learnt they’re very daring and like trying new things in new dishes, tastes and flavours. Even drinks. Sometimes we bring a drink onto the menu called Dubonnet, which is very old fashioned, it used to be very popular at the beginning of the 20th century in France, and it’s sort of coming back as a retro drink and it’s been really popular.
Sort of like the rise of the whole Aperol and Campari spritz trend?
Yes, very similar. People love it!
Sometimes French cuisine can seem very over-blown or expensive, but price point you’ve set the menu at is really good - do you think that’s helped your success?
To me, the good price was part of my vision. I really wanted to have a menu that was affordable and I wanted people to come again and again, and treat the restaurant more as an extension of their home and be able to afford to come every week or a few times a month. Rustic food, if it’s good ingredients doesn’t have to be stupid expensive, you know? To me, it’s really important that it’s real, good quality and affordable.
The whole of Mare Street really seems to be changing, with loads of great little restaurants opening up, like Rita’s and The Advisory. Were you happy to be part of the original scene that kicked it all off?
It’s so great. Obviously all the new restaurants opening up can create direct competition at the start, but the reality is that it brings more people to the street, and more attention. It also brings diversity, which is only ever a good thing.
What’s your favourite dish on the menu?
I think the raclette is great fun, so this doesn’t require much cooking but is great to share amongst friends. I love all our cheeses - they’re all farmhouse cheese from France, unpasturised cheese so they all have a good bit of character.
Where’s your favourite place to eat round here?
I love to eat everything from neighbourhood pizza places to the Michelin started restaurants. I love Il Guscio, which is a small, traditional pizzeria on Clapton Road. I used to go to Raw Duck, I haven’t been since it’s re-opened, but for lunch it’s a really cool place to go.
What would you choose for your last meal on earth?
It would definitely involve beef, probably a rib of beef, or cote du boeuf, probably some oysters to start. And a nice crisp green salad with vinagrette.
Salim Kaid, head chef
Has your background always been in French food?
My background is in fine dining, I’ve worked in The Rib Room in the Carlton Tower and the Dorset Sqaure Hotel. I did my Cordon Bleu in the Institute of the Culinary Arts in London about 15 years ago. I like cooking classic French and nouvelle cuisine.
You’ve worked in some pretty fine dining spots in London - what’s it like working on Mare Street now?
It’s great - obviously Hackney has changed a lot since 2001, it’s very up and coming, you’ve got young professionals mixed with white collars from the city. It’s changed so much and we like it as we bring a different vibe to the area with our restaurant.
What's the one ingredient you couldn’t be without?
I’d have to say salt...and would you call fire an ingredient?
Um, probably more of an energy source, really.
OK then, salt. And meat.
What’s the signature dish here?
I’ve got a couple of dishes that I’ve introduced here, the lamb shank with butterbeans, it’s really unique to us in the way we prepare and treat it. Also the pork belly - we use a Pyranean pig which is so flavoursome, paired with our Provencal confit of tomatoes and Dauphinoise potatoes. They’re all classic dishes. My own signature dish - I cooked it recently for Mother’s Day - is tuna nicoise. I take a nice steak of tuna and cover it in pink peppercorns, tarragon and other fresh herbs and we sear it before adding it to the salad.
Is that one that’s going to be coming back on the menu?
Yes, very soon. Once it warms up a bit, we’ll bring it back, it’s nice for summer.
Where do you like to eat?
Personally, I like Persian and Lebanese cooking. I like Ranoush on Edgeware Road and I used to like the Baghdad Cafe back in the day.
Last meal on earth?
Lamb, definitely. Starter has got to be hot oak-smoked salmon and for dessert probably a creme brulee with a pink praline.